November 6, 2023

MARGULIES | There Is No Them, There Is Only Us

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I have been at Cornell for 10 years and in academia for two decades and have never seen so many students in so much distress. A great many Muslim and Arab students feel unseen, unheard and unsafe. More recently, their ranks have been swelled by the many Jewish students who feel the campus has become menacing. And of course, the person suspected of sending the sickening anti-Semitic postings is Asian, so we gird ourselves for a wave of anti-Asian hate.

Meanwhile, there was a report last week of a man carrying a gun just off campus, and armed security officers began to patrol White Hall, where I work and which houses the Government Department and the Department of Near Eastern Studies. There was an arson recently in the bathroom down the corridor from my office. CUPD says the report of a gunman was “unfounded,” but the officers remain.

The pain is not identical for all who suffer; pain never is. Jewish students feel anew what Muslim and Arab students have felt for some time. It is a sense of isolation that gives way to insecurity and fear. But it is sharper for being newly felt, and their trauma is real. Muslim and Arab students are reminded every day of their distinct marginalization. As I wrote this, President Pollack released another statement: “[O]n Sunday night, shortly after we learned of the threats, I went to sit with our Jewish students at the Center for Jewish Living and I returned the next morning with Governor Hochul, and for dinner that evening. It was so heartening to spend time with our students, who expressed strength and resilience even in the face of these awful threats.”

Perhaps it need not be said, but the President and Governor have not broken bread with our Muslim and Arab students, who have all but abandoned the hope that the solicitude extended to distressed Jewish students will also be extended to them. In place of universal solicitude for shared pain, we engage in morally vacuous debates about whose pain came first and whose suffering is more grievous, as though empathy and compassion were zero-sum.

Some trace our problem to confusion about the difference between protected and unprotected speech. I agree that many people need a refresher on this score, but ending their ignorance will not solve our problem. The problem is that we have wounded each other — as much by protected speech as by unprotected conduct. These wounds cannot be left to fester and cannot be healed by the exercise of rights.

If the campus is a community, then the right to speak must be accompanied by the duty to repair. It does no disservice to freedom of expression to expect that those who have caused injury listen to — and genuinely hear — those they have injured in order that they might understand the pain they have caused and the harm they have done. That is why the University should pursue a response that is grounded in the principles of restorative justice.

Restorative models have a long history. In their modern form, they operate alongside, and sometimes in lieu of, formal processes like the criminal legal system — processes that aim to cast out rather than bring back, to punish rather than repair. Importantly, they are not a place to “win” arguments. They are not a moment to prove who is right or wrong about a particular topic, and they do not replace vigorous public debate about contentious issues.

Instead, they are an opportunity to redress harms by bringing together those who have been injured with those who have injured them in a safe environment that guarantees the dignity, respect and privacy of all. Guided by professionally trained facilitators, restorative models look backward to repair the harm that has been done, and forward to build practices that make harm less likely in the future, regardless of the topic.

I come to restorative models because of my work in and with the criminal legal system. But at times like this, it is not my work that draws me to these models. I write as a Jew who believes in Israel’s right to exist, and who condemns without reservation or hesitation the slaughter of civilians. I write as a human rights lawyer who believes Israel’s behavior in Gaza and the West Bank is and has long been horrific. I write as a teacher, who every day sees young people in great distress.

But most of all, I write as a human being, who long ago concluded that the evil upon which all others are built — the scaffolding from which every Black man has ever swung and the chamber within which every Jew has ever been gassed — is the toxic belief that They are not like Us, and that our safety comes from their annihilation. Lately, thinking like this abounds, on campus and beyond. Restorative models set themselves against this madness, proclaiming that there is no them, there is only us, and that the security of each depends on the wellbeing of all. This message, at once simple and profound, has never been more important, and not just at Cornell.

Joseph Margulies is a civil rights attorney and Professor of Law and Government in the College of Arts and Sciences. His research focuses on the American criminal justice system, cruelty and inequity. He can be reached at [email protected].

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